Jeremy Earl typically plays this 1970s Yamaha FG200 or a vintage Silvertone solidbody. Photo by Matt Condon
Over its 11-year existence, Brooklyn-based psych-folk collective Woods has made a comfortable home for itself writing and producing albums that hide between genres and transcend sonic definitions—without sacrificing musical personality for the sake of style hopping. With its ninth, City Sun Eater in the River of Light, Woods has rendered yet another glowing portrait of that personality, painted, as usual, in songs that naturally flow where they may.
City Sun Eater is an adventurous affair that finds frontman/guitarist/principal songwriter Jeremy Earl exploring his art along a path through West African-infused psych-rock meditations, the dusty back roads of steel-guitar Americana, spaced-out dubs, and rhythm-heavy freak-outs—all tied together by his smooth falsetto vocals. Stepping away from his usual 6- and 12-string duties, Jarvis Taveniere co-piloted the album by writing songs with Earl, engineering, co-producing, and laying down bass tracks.
“It’s all about having fun and trying different things as a band at this point,” Earl explains. “Most important, we’re focused on being completely free and open to trying anything we want and experimenting in the studio. But having fun is the only real expectation we have. For a while we were doing one record a year, and when we started touring more that pace became harder to pull off, but it worked out because we also wanted to let our albums simmer a bit more before making new statements. Now I let the songs come naturally—I don’t try to push any kind of deadlines.”
Just as City Sun Eater in the River of Light was hitting the streets, we spoke to Earl and fellow fun-seeker Taveniere about creative goals, intertwined guitars, arranging on the fly, and how to make simplicity speak volumes.
Jeremy, what role does the guitar play in your writing process?
Jeremy Earl: It’s my voice and a guitar providing the basis for almost all of our songs. A lot of the time, I work off of a vocal melody first—something that just pops into my head while I’m driving or something—and I’ll get home and sit down with a guitar and work out a chord progression that will work with it. But a lot of the time, it’s casual strumming around the house that allows inspiration to strike, and I then follow it.
That said, I played all of the guitar on this album. Typically Jarvis handles more of the melodic leads and I’ll handle more of the solos and rhythm guitar, but for this one Jarvis was engineering as well as handling the bass, so he was otherwise occupied. And once we got going into overdubs, I was just flying and ideas kept coming out. Live, Jarvis is playing most of the lead stuff that I can’t do while I’m singing, and backing up the band with other guitar parts.
Where do you come from as a guitar player?
Earl: It’s kind of weird, because I don’t consider myself much of a guitar player, really. My technique is pretty sloppy, and I never had lessons or anything like that. I started as a drummer, but fell into songwriting and got very swept up in that. I then learned basic chords just to form songs, which came fairly easily. So I formed my guitar playing around this loose, almost caveman-esque philosophy of “use what you’ve got” without concern for being flashy, trying to be a little more creative with what tools I have while keeping things minimal.
Jarvis, did you play much bass prior to tracking this album?
Jarvis Taveniere: It just happened over the years because of recording. I never thought of myself as a bassist, but once I started paying attention to it, I really locked into it and a whole new world opened up.
To your credit, the bass on City Sun Eater doesn’t sound like a guitarist jumping over to bass, which can lead to bass tracks that aren’t very rhythmic.
Taveniere: Yeah, I definitely don’t like that style of “lead” bass playing. There are certainly recordings that have that kind of playing that I don’t mind, but I prefer bass players that are thinking about the bass as a rhythmic thing. The goal of any rhythm section should be to elevate the song and take it to the next level without getting in the way or being too flashy. I like elevating songs in a subtle way—that’s why I find the bass so much fun. Traditional rhythmic bass playing is so exciting because you can do a lot with a little—the accents and the subtle touches. Playing bass is kind of like a math problem in which I want to see what I can do to negotiate things between the drums and the guitar. Like, “How can I be melodic and rhythmic and find a happy middle that serves the song?”
Was it difficult to learn Jeremy’s guitar parts from the record to perform live?
Taveniere: I think I figured them out before Jeremy could remember what he played—because I was there tracking them with him. A lot of those parts were written on the spot, too, and we’d work them out together a bit, so I understood the parts well already.
When you’re playing live, do you vary those parts to add your own flair?
Taveniere: For sure! A lot of it is trying to get the parts right and playing what they really are, but the other side of it is listening to what the live band is actually doing and approaching each situation as its own. I had to buy some new pedals to make it work. Like, I never played slide guitar, so I had to learn to play that and buy a volume pedal to properly play the killer slide guitar parts our friend Tim Presley from the band White Fence added to the album. I had to learn to play some different styles and techniques, and while these parts are fairly simple, it took work to get it all to sit right with the band and learn that different touch.
I also do some things live that double or work in harmony with our sax player [Kyle Forester]. I ask myself what the song is missing and how I can make adjustments and make the right impact. I like to focus on the little details. I think that stuff is important, and if it’s something I want to hear live, it’s something a fan might miss were I to leave it out.
Jeremy, there’s a lot of guitar on this record that is subtle or technically demure, but substantial in function—like the little lead licks on “Sun City Creeps.” How do you go about writing melodies like that?
Earl: I started getting into writing more rhythmic patterns like that from listening to a lot of African highlife and West African palm-wine music. I got obsessed with those rhythms, and that came out in the vibe of that song. We were going for this Ethiopian jazz kind of vibe, so while we were jamming I started riffing on those ideas and that part became almost the hook of the song. Coming from being a drummer and hearing things as a more percussion-minded person, little rhythms really interest me and I gravitate towards them.
What led you to African music?
Earl: Touring and going into record stores on the road. A friend gave me one of the first Éthiopiques compilations, and that sent me down that rabbit hole. I fell in love with those compilations and started picking them up on the road. We’d jam them in the van and we all started digging that sound! The vibe of that music is so intoxicating.